by Sten Alvarsson
There is a clear relationship between skin tone and levels of achievement in education. Lighter skin tones achieve higher levels of education and employment on both a personal and family basis (Keith, 2009). Advantages and disadvantages of skin tone relative to a particular group or individual within a society are based on perceived ideas of beauty and status and their associated connotations. The advantages of having lighter skin can be passed down through family networks, as children receive the privileges of the structure they are born into.
Educational advantages of a lighter skin tone relative to others in their environment can be present from an early stage. Teachers can judge students with greater attractiveness to also have greater levels of intelligence (Keith, 2009). Since skin tone often plays an important role in perceived attractiveness, teachers may have higher expectations, give out more encouragement and give higher marks, amongst other preferential treatment, to lighter skinned students resulting in superior academic performance.
Children are highly perceptive to these socialised messages regarding skin tones. When darker skin tones are devalued the affect can be equally as damaging as the extolment of lighter skin tones are advantageous (Elmore, 2009). Adolescents in particular have a heightened sense of self-consciousness in relation to their physical appearance and the socialised messages they receive in the classroom can have a great impact on their academic performance and opportunities for socio-economic mobility later in life.
Research shows that lighter skin tones are often linked to higher socio-economic status to the extent that, “Complexion operates as a form of social capital that can be converted to human capital assets” (Keith, 2009, p. 29). This is supported in research by Joni Hersch which shows that, “On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education” in relation to employment earnings (as cited in Nair, 2010, p. 25). In fact, Keith (2009) highlights a direct relationship between lighter skin tones and increased levels of education. Such research has been questioned by academics like Gullickson (2004) who state that, “Colorism itself might still remain, but structural changes in larger race relations have reduced the advantage it previously gave to lighter skinned individuals” (p. 22). However, Keith (2009) argues that both media images and academic research do not show a decrease in the importance of skin complexion as a marker for achievement.
As has been demonstrated, skin tone is an important marker for achievement in education. Skin tone based social messages, behavioral norms and patterns of thought within the classroom are a powerful force in children’s development. Subsequently, skin tones also play a prominent role in later outcomes in areas such as mate selection, economic opportunities, occupational status and health conditions (Keith, 2009). Therefore, there needs to be a focus on education at a young age working towards combatting skin tone bias in order to lessen its prevalence with each new generation. Ultimately, we are all embodiments of living experiences and an end to skin tone bias would be an important step forward toward an existence without discrimination.
Elmore, T. G. (2009). Colorism in the classroom: An exploration of adolescents’ skin tone, skin tone preferences, perceptions of skin tone stigma and identity. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UMI Dissertation Publishing. (3395695)
Gullickson, A. (2004). The significance of color declines: A re-analysis of skin tone differentials in post civil rights America. Retrieved from http://www.demog.berkeley.edu/~aarong/PAPERS/gullick_asa2003_skintone.pdf
Keith, V. M. (2009). A colorstruck world: Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem among African American women. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters (pp. 25-39). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Nair, M. (2010). Social awareness in selected films. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Aveiro, Portugal.